A RELISH FOR PICKLES

Grocers may not relish the hot, dog days of summer, but they could find themselves in a pickle if they don't properly merchandise their sweet and sours, dills and gherkins.The summer barbecue season is coming, and it's sure to create a rise in pickle sales, according to retailers and manufacturers.While the category's sales are generally steady year-round, manufacturers said there are periods when

Grocers may not relish the hot, dog days of summer, but they could find themselves in a pickle if they don't properly merchandise their sweet and sours, dills and gherkins.

The summer barbecue season is coming, and it's sure to create a rise in pickle sales, according to retailers and manufacturers.

While the category's sales are generally steady year-round, manufacturers said there are periods when jumps in sales usually occur. Memorial Day and Independence Day are prime examples, they said.

Most retailers contacted by SN said pickle sales were holding at the same levels as last year. A few reported increases, however. Hughes Family Markets, Irwindale, Calif., for example, saw growth of 2.5% in case volume and 4.5% in dollar volume, said Harland Polk, senior vice president of sales and merchandising. He said sweet pickles are his best sellers.

There hasn't been much in the way of new products in the category, but that will soon change. Officials at both Vlasic, Camden, N.J., and H.J. Heinz Co., Pittsburgh, two major suppliers, said their companies will have new products on the market within three to four months.

Both officials said they could not comment on the soon-to-be-introduced products. They did say retailers should watch increases in traditional sales this year.

"Your kosher dill pickles and hamburger dill chips are very popular during the summer months, whereas your sweet varieties tend to be more popular around Easter and the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays," said Rick Moritz, product manager for Heinz.

"Brokers always want the Memorial Day ad, the Fourth of July ad and the Labor Day ad," said Juanita Hall, a buyer for Nob Hill General Store, Gilroy, Calif. "Of course, the ads are going to make movement pick up." The category is relatively quiet at other times during the year, she said.

Bob Rieck, a buyer for Seaway Food Town, Maumee, Ohio, echoed those comments. "We'll see an increase soon. We do a lot of heavy promotion beginning in the spring; ads, in-store displays, everything."

Spicy versions, he reported, don't do well in his stores. "We started carrying the hot spices when they became available about a year ago. But there are only so many people who will eat hot pickles." Rieck said Seaway puts pickles in with other condiments on "picnic displays."

A buyer for a New Jersey retailer who asked not to be identified said his stores have a similar philosophy. "Sales are steady. We try to make the most of the picnic season by putting pickles and other condiments in front of our customers' eyes."

During the colder months, he continued, the only place pickles are found is on the shelf. "The only time we do any merchandising is from just before Memorial Day through Labor Day. We'll put them on displays at the ends of aisles or put them on a display with ketchup and mustard near the hot dogs or in the bread aisle near the buns. We usually see good results from that sort of thing."

Mark Lancia, associate product manager for Heinz, said displays are indeed the way to go to spike sales. "We've done several things like that in the past and will continue to do so," he said. "We try to take advantage of the other products here at Heinz. We try to cross-merchandise with ketchup and barbecue sauce to try and get some nice displays.

"We try to concentrate on generating merchandising support for the trade because that type of performance generates the best return. We get the best reaction from consumers when we're merchandised and featured in displays and so on," Lancia said.

Woody Rosenbach, senior marketing manager for Vlasic, concurred. "This category has been undermarketed the past few years, both from a manufacturer and a trade perspective. You need new product activity as well as advertising and merchandising support to stimulate people to buy the product. "When you go into a store and are shopping for an event, pickles aren't necessarily the first thing on your list. But having displays on the floor, having new activity and having reminder advertising really drives people to buy."

Rosenbach said he hopes to see displays of his company's new picnic pack. "It's a shrink pack of our three best-selling items: kosher spears, sweet relish and hamburger dill chips. It's perfect for picnics and barbecues."